Community colleges got a potential leg-up last week when President Barack Obama announced a 10-year, $12 billion plan to help students get new job skills for a changing economy.
But back in Colorado, Senate Majority Leader John Morse is staring at a state budget hole that could sink any benefit. It's putting state funding for higher education — including community colleges — into serious doubt.
"We're not going to solve this [budget problem] $3 million at a time," Morse says. "We've got to start taking some giant steps."
This fiscal year's shortfall is estimated at $384 million, but Morse is more worried about 2010-11's projection of nearly $500 million. In his view, the combined effect demands an outright reduction in state government, likely by shedding the one major branch that's not mandated and isn't needed to keep the public safe: higher education.
"I don't see any other way that's humanly possible," says Morse, who serves on the state's Long-Term Fiscal Stability Commission. "We're talking about cutting off a leg."
As things stand, the six biggest departments receive 96 percent of the state's $7.4 billion. Public schools get more than $3 billion, untouchable because of voter-passed funding laws.
Four other biggies include the prison system, health programs (Medicaid and others), the court system and human services. Morse doesn't see how to make significant cuts to any, since they are either mandated or needed to avoid releasing prisoners to the streets.
That leaves higher education, budgeted this year to receive $660.5 million, or 9 percent of the total. Eliminating it would dramatically increase tuition and could result in campuses slashing programs; some community colleges could close.
If it doesn't require state matching funds, Obama's plan could help. But $12 billion split over 10 years and 50 states amounts to relative peanuts. The end result, Morse says, would still be fewer going to college.
"We will pay, pay, pay in the long run," he says.
Pikes Peak Community College's state funding comes to about $15.5 million a year, almost 45 percent of its budget, according to President Tony Kinkel. He sounds stunned about the prospect of losing state funding entirely.
"I don't know that we could keep the doors open," he says. At a minimum, he adds, the college would have to increase tuition by 50 percent, close its Falcon campus and use only adjunct faculty.
Kinkel says he hopes the idea of cutting higher-ed funding is a wake-up call.
"Colorado is getting to the edge of the abyss," he says.
Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, on the Legislature's Joint Budget Committee, says an "eye-opener" will come next year, when legislators learn if income has fallen enough to free them from a law requiring yearly funding boosts for K-through-12 education.
Regardless of economic recovery, Morse says, the picture is bleak. His only other option would be slicing into sales tax exemptions and tax credits now in place. But Morse sees ending the exemption that lets people buy most of their groceries tax-free as a tougher sell.
"Politically," he says, "it's going to be very difficult to do."